Arriving again

It had been more than 40 years since I had been in Meridian.  Back then, you arrived in town on two-lane U.S. 80,  which connected Meridian, with Montgomery and Selma to the east and Jackson and Vicksburg to the west.  US 80 was a workaday highway then, bounded by farms and piney woods, desolate in places, with little in the way features– a gas station here, a small town there.

Nowadays, you drive into Meridian on I20 , a rumbling interstate full of 18-wheelers from Atlanta and Birmingham headed to parts west.

I was thinking back to my first drive to Meridian, in late June 1964.  I was in a car of brand fresh civil rights workers from the north and midwest coming from an intense week of training in Oxford, OH.  There we had learned the principles and practices of nonviolence. We had been warned of the dangers, but we had been fortified with safety rules: don’t stand in front of a lighted window at night, get a Mississippi license tag right away, and do not under any circumstances, if you are a white woman, be seen alone in public with a black man.  You could be endangering his life.

In Oxford,we  had learned that three young men who preceded us had disappeared and were feared dead. The three had been based in Meridian/ We were headed to Meridian.  COFO higherups had decided we should drive all night from Ohio, through Kentucky, Tennessee. I vividly recall the wavy, shimmering of the predawn highway as my sleep-deprived brain struggled to maintain enough attention to keep the car on the highway.  I remember thinking that I knew I was willing to die for civil rights, but was I willing to die for lack of sleep?

I thought too of the dozens of times I had driven US 80 back and forth from Meridian to Montgomery in 1966 and 1967, when I worked for the Southern Courier newspaper, consuming a lifetime supply of AM country music and Motown.

Back to the present, I realized I was  in Lauderdale County.  I was excited, and my mind filled with images of the downtown Meridian I had known, at that time a city of nearly 50,000 people. with a compact downtown of mostly two- and three-story banks,  stores, offices, and churches.

In no way was I prepared for the welcome sign that greeted me this time. It screamed “BED, BATH & BEYOND.” Arrayed on both sides of the Interstate was one of the biggest malls I have ever seen (okay, I live in Vermont). Dozens of standard-issue beige buildings housing national chain stores were clumped on both sides of the highway. I sure wasn’t in the 1960s any more, and neither was Meridian.

I still had enough of a sense of my bearings to get off at the downtown exit.  As I headed onto the overpass heading into town, I glanced in my rearview mirror. The driver of the car behind-me was a black young man, looking totally relaxed, wearing a baseball cap half backwards. Next to him, looking equally relaxed, was a very white teenage girl.

“Oh my God!” I thought.  “They’re going to get shot!”

They weren’t, of course. As I was to realize in the next few days, this was a perfectly normal sight in Meridian.  I had a lot to re- learn.

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